Only four teams are left standing as the AFC and NFC Championship matchups are set. The NFC pairing of the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons should be a fun one, but I'll focus on the AFC game because it is a repeat of last year's AFC finale.
The Ravens and Patriots will battle it out in Foxborough again for the Lamar Hunt Trophy and a trip to New Orleans for the Super Bowl. They are the sixth pair of teams since the NFL/AFL merger to play each other for the conference championship in consecutive years. Last year's AFC Championship was a thrilling game and perhaps Sunday night will bring another, but New England and Baltimore have already entered the history books.
Two weeks ago, I looked at postseason rematches and will now cull that list to include only those from the conference championship round.
1992-1994 Dallas Cowboys vs. San Francisco 49ers
These two titans met for the NFC crown as the top two seeds for three straight seasons, with the winner going on to the win the Super Bowl all three times.
1992 - This was a back-and-forth game at Candlestick. With just over four minutes left, San Fran scored to cut the Dallas lead to 24-20 and needed a stop. But Troy Aikman hit Alvin Harper, who ran for a 70-yard gain to put the Cowboys at the 9. The 49ers still had a shot to hold the visitors to a field goal and stay alive, but on third-and-goal, Kelvin Martin's six-yard TD catch put the game away and Dallas won 30-20.
1993 - The rematch was in Dallas and the Cowboys rolled early, scoring touchdowns on four of their first five possessions. They were up 28-7 at halftime, and despite Troy Aikman being knocked out from the game with a concussion, backup Bernie Kosar sat on the lead and Dallas won 38-21.
*The Pats, Ravens and 49ers are back in the conference championship for the second consecutive year, with only the reigning champion Giants missing the party. 1992-93 was the last time three of the final four teams made it this far again the following year, as Buffalo won their third and fourth straight AFC titles.
1994 - The third time was the charm for Steve Young and the Niners, who turned three Dallas turnovers into a 21-0 lead in the first seven-plus minutes of the game. The Cowboys fought back but never got within single digits as San Francisco won 38-28.
1986-1987 Denver Broncos vs. Cleveland Browns
Two agonizing losses for a sports city that has had too many of them.
1986 - The Drive. The Broncos trailed the Browns 20-13 in a raucous Cleveland Municipal Stadium and had the ball at their own 2 with only 5:43 remaining. John Elway led Denver 98 yards to tie the game in the final minute before the Broncos won in overtime, 23-20.
1987 - The Fumble. The two teams met again for the AFC title, this time in Denver. The Broncos held a 38-31 advantage with four minutes left and for the second straight year, the visiting quarterback was leading a great drive in the waning moments. Bernie Kosar and the Browns had 2nd-and-5 at the Denver 8 yard line with 1:12 to go. Running back Earnest Byner chugged his way for the first down and towards the end zone, but corner back Jeremiah Castille knocked the ball loose and recovered the fumble at the 2. Denver won 38-33 and broke Cleveland's heart once again. Byner had a marvelous game (187 yards, two TD's) but it was unfortunately overshadowed by that one play.
1978-1979 Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Houston Oilers
On their way to back-to-back championships, the Steelers rolled past the division-rival Oilers en route to the Super Bowl. Out of the six pairings featured here, this is the only one that had the rematch take place in the same venue. However, that changes on Sunday with Baltimore visiting New England for the second year in a row.
1978 - The Oilers were led by powerhouse running back Earl Campbell, who was in the first of an amazing three-year run to start his career. From 1978-80, he averaged 1,694 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns. However, Houston could never get past the Steel Curtain. The game was a mess, played in a freezing rain. Pittsburgh turned the ball over five times, but they forced nine of their own and held Houston to 142 yards of offense. The Steelers scored 17 points in the last 48 seconds of the first half and won 34-5. It is still the only 34-5 game in NFL history.
1979 - The Steelers hosted the Oilers again the following year, and although Houston kept this game tighter, Pittsburgh prevailed. Down 17-10 with 1:30 left in the third quarter, the Oilers appeared to score the game-tying touchdown. The officials ruled Mike Renfro's grab an incomplete pass and Houston settled for a field goal. They wouldn't score again as the Steelers won 27-13. The Steel Curtain defense held the great Earl Campbell to a meager 15 yards on 17 carries.
1974-1976 Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Oakland Raiders
The Steelers and Raiders met in five consecutive postseasons, with the last three contests coming with a Super Bowl berth on the line.
1974 - Pittsburgh beat Oakland on the Immaculate Reception in the 1972 divisional round. Oakland got revenge in 1973 and was poised to win again in 1974, leading 10-3 in the fourth quarter at home. The Steelers however, turned the game around and outscored the Silver and Black 21-3 in the final stanza to win their first conference championship, 24-13.
1975 - Played on an icy field that drew the ire of Raiders owner Al Davis and head coach John Madden, this one was ranked fifth on the NFL's list of the greatest bad weather games. Through three quarters, the Steelers led 3-0. It's the last time a playoff game was that low-scoring heading into the fourth. Things heated up a bit late though, as the teams traded touchdowns until it was 16-7 Steelers with 17 seconds left. Down two scores, Oakland kicked a field goal, recovered the onside kick and set things up for a wild finish:
Cliff Branch caught a desperation pass, but couldn't get out of bounds at the Pittsburgh 15 yard line until time had expired and the Steelers won 16-10.
1976 - Payback came in Oakland. The 13-1 Raiders avenged their only loss of the season (a 48-17 thrashing in New England) with a controversial 24-21 win over the Patriots in the divisional round to set up the fifth and final Raiders/Steelers playoff match.*
* The Raiders trailed 21-17 in the final minute and faced 3rd-and-18 at the Pats' 27. Ken Stabler threw incomplete, but a dubious roughing-the-passer call against Ray "Sugar Bear" Hamilton gave Oakland new life. With ten seconds left, Stabler scrambled for the winning score and avoided the upset.
Oakland controlled the game from the start and had more than twice as many rushing yards as the Steelers, who were missing both Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. The Raiders rolled to a 24-7 victory en route to a Super Bowl crown.
1970-1971 Dallas Cowboys vs. San Francisco 49ers
Those early 1990s Aikman/Young battles were not the first time that Dallas and San Francisco met for the NFC title.
1970 - In the first postseason since the AFL/NFL merger, the Cowboys beat the Lions in the divisional round 5-0, just one of three games that have had that final score.
|1||2||Sun||October 2, 1927||W||Providence Steam Roller||Buffalo Bisons||5||0|
|2||Division||Sat||December 26, 1970||boxscore||W||Dallas Cowboys||Detroit Lions||5||0|
|3||8||Sun||October 22, 1978||boxscore||W||Buffalo Bills||Cincinnati Bengals||5||0|
That set up the Niners/Cowboys showdown. They were tied 3-3 at the half, but in the third quarter, San Fran's MVP quarterback John Brodie threw two picks that turned into eventual Dallas touchdowns. The 49ers cut the lead in half, but couldn't get the equalizer and the Cowboys won 17-10 in the final game at old Kezar Stadium.
1971 - While the 1970 contest closed down San Francisco's stadium, the 1971 NFC Championship was the first of many playoff games at the Cowboys' new home at Texas Stadium in Irving.
It was another defensive struggle while Dallas did just enough to win. The D held San Francisco to 61 rushing yards and intercepted Brodie three times as the Cowboys won 14-3.
1966-1967 Green Bay Packers vs. Dallas Cowboys
Although this predates the merger and the "AFC" and "NFC," I thought I'd include these two games from the first two seasons of the Super Bowl era.
1966 - This game on New Year's Day of 1967 would determine who would represent the NFL in the first Super Bowl against the champion of the upstart rival American Football League.
Things started quickly in Dallas, as both teams scored two touchdowns in the first quarter for a 14-14 tie. It is one of only three postseason games in which both teams scored at least 14 points in the opening frame. One was Green Bay's 2007 divisional round win over Seattle and the other was Baltimore's wild victory in Denver this past Saturday.
Bart Starr's four touchdown passes gave the Packers a 34-20 lead with 5:20 remaining. Dandy Don Meredith connected with Frank Clarke on a 68-yard touchdown bomb to start a comeback and after getting the ball back, drove the 'Boys to the Green Bay 2. But the Packers held firm on a goal line stand to win 34-27.
1967 - The Packers and Cowboys opened 1967 with a classic game in Dallas and ended 1967 with an even more famous game in Green Bay. The Ice Bowl was played on December 31, 1967 and is one of the greatest in the annals of football history.
The official game-time temperature at Lambeau Field was 13 degrees below zero. This video from the NFL's countdown of the greatest bad weather games is full of wonderful personal stories about the deep freeze that day.
The visiting Cowboys led 17-14 with 4:50 remaining when Bart Starr took the ball at the Green Bay 32 and engineered a final drive that brought the Packers inside the Dallas one yard line. On 3rd-and-goal with 16 seconds left, Starr pulled off a QB sneak for the game-winning touchdown that propelled the Packers to Super Bowl II. Vince Lombardi's final game at Lambeau Field was a Packers victory unlike any other.
1964-1965 Buffalo Bills vs. San Diego Chargers
I'll also include two other pairings from the American Football League.
1964 - The reigning AFL champs were the San Diego Chargers, who whipped the Patriots 51-10 for the title in '63. The Bolts, who wore the sweetest unis in NFL history, were without star receiver Lance Alworth for the Championship Game in Buffalo and things were about to get worse. Bills LB Mike Stratton laid down a decimating hit running back Keith Lincoln (:48 mark in the video below). Lincoln was forced from the game with a broken rib and the Bills never looked back.
They clung to a 13-7 halftime lead before icing the game on a QB sneak TD by Jack Kemp. The Bills won 20-7 and claimed their first AFL crown. Kemp would go into politics, serving in the House of Representatives before he was tabbed as George H.W. Bush's HUD Secretary. Kemp was Bob Dole's running mate in a losing effort in the 1996 presidential race.
1965 - Head coach Lou Saban (who may or may not be related to Nick) piloted the Bills to the title game the following year and had to go through the Chargers again, this time in San Diego.
The Bills breezed to another title with a 23-0 whitewashing of the Chargers. It is one of only 29 shutouts in the NFL postseason, and there have only been four shutouts by a road team since:
Marty Schottenheimer was a rookie linebacker on that Bills team and he made the Pro Bowl. He wasn't able to win the big one as a coach, but he didn't waste any time picking up a ring during his playing career.
1960-1961 Houston Oilers vs. Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers
1960 - On New Year's Day 1961, the AFL finished its first season with the Championship Game between the L.A. Chargers and Houston Oilers.
The Oilers led 17-16 in the fourth quarter, but faced 3rd-and-9 at their own 12 yard line. George Blanda hit running back and 1959 Heisman Winner Billy Cannon with a pass and Cannon took it all the way for an 88-yard score and an eight-point lead. The Chargers drove to the Houston 22 in a frantic bid to tie the game, but their comeback bid fell short and the Oilers won the league title.
1961 - The Chargers moved down the coast to San Diego for the 1961 season, and they made it back to the final game against Houston.
Blanda kicked a field goal and threw another TD pass to Cannon for a 10-0 lead (let's see Brady or Rodgers do that!). The Bolts netted a field goal of their own but got no closer as the Oilers repeated as champs, 10-3.
It was a sloppy game, as the Oilers turned it over seven times and the Chargers coughed it up six times. The only postseason game with more turnovers was the icy Steelers-Oilers 34-5 debacle that I wrote about above. There have been 14 playoff games with ten or more combined turnovers, and only one since 1982 (the Titans-Jaguars AFC title game in 1999):
Also notable in this game is that both teams accrued exactly 256 yards of offense. It is one of two postseason games in which both teams had identical yardage totals. The other was the bonkers 39-38 49ers-Giants Wild Card game from 2002 (446-446)*.
* The Giants led 38-14 with just over 17 minutes left in the game. A touchdown, two-point conversion, three-and-out and another TD/two-pointer trimmed the lead to 38-30 before the fourth quarter even started. The Niners eventually took a 39-38 lead with 1:05 to go. Kerry Collins drove Big Blue to the San Francisco 23, setting up a 40-yard kick for the win. Long snapper Trey Junkin, signed out of retirement five days prior, rolled a bad snap. Holder Matt Allen could have fallen on the ball and called timeout or thrown it out of bounds to set up another try, but he decided to roll out to pass. He heaved it downfield for O-lineman Rich Seubert, who was interfered with as the ball landed incomplete. Despite having checked in moments earlier, Seubert was flagged as an ineligible receiver and the game was over. The Giants should have had another try on an untimed down due to the offsetting penalties, and the League later admitted the error. Judging by how things were going however, had he gotten another chance, kicker Matt Bryant probably would've gotten hit by a meteor. The Giants have won two Super Bowls since this game, giving me two of the most thrilling sports experiences of a lifetime, why am I still bitter about this game?